The Alphabet Soup of the Science World

We marvel at the wonders of life on Earth, and we worry about its living creatures and plants. In 1993 our global cooperative, the United Nations, obtained a promise from 194 nations (that’s everyone except Andorra, the Holy See and the United States), to work together to decrease the loss of the species we live with.

The Parties to the resulting Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) have put significant resources into this global effort to plan for conservation, create ways to follow progress, raise awareness about this good work, and to find any roadblocks.

An amphitheatre with a few people sitting at a conference.

The plenary hall at the 15th meeting of the Subsidiary Body for Technology and Technological Advice. November 2011. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

There is much to be proud of in seeing this kind of collaborative effort, and there is great frustration in noticing what still needs to be done. It isn’t surprising that our greatest obstacle is us, as a result of our great ability to reproduce, be innovative and thrive.

The United Nations biodiversity convention gets regular advice from a scientific body, and once you dip into that world it becomes apparent that the milieu of the UN is like swimming in a bowl of alphabet soup. For starters, the meeting rooms are awash in six official languages (English, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, French and Chinese). Also, every initiative, plan, working group, document, and procedure has a full name that once created is forevermore known by its acronym.

Most people are thankful for the acronym because the full names are beautifully descriptive, all inclusive and usually cumbersome and long-winded. For example, if you are going to the science advisory meeting of the convention, you are attending the UNEP CBD SBSTTA meetings—the United Nations Environmental Program’s Convention on Biological Diversity’s Subsidiary Body for Science, Technology and Technological Advice.

Early morning dew on a field of grass.

Early morning dew on a field of grass. Image: Mark Graham © Mark Graham.

The CBD organizes itself around numerous themes relating to biological diversity, such as forests, mountains, islands, freshwater, marine and agriculture. It has been evident from the beginnings of the CBD in 1993 that some issues impact all of these themes. Taxonomy is one of those cross-cutting issues because it identifies and classifies the species that provide the world’s biological services (such as food, fibres, waste removal; the things we all need to survive).

The work of taxonomists is joined with the results of other science disciplines to better understand the sustainability of those services. The capacity of taxonomic expertise; however, is so low that it is considered an impediment to the progress of conservation efforts.

Logo of the Global Taxonomy Initiative

The Global Taxonomy Initiative is a program of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Image: © Secretariat, UN Convention on Biological Diversity

Early on, the CBD Secretariat created the Global Taxonomy Initiative to help improve this taxonomic expertise. For the past few years, the Canadian Museum of Nature has chaired the Coordination Mechanism (CM) for this initiative. The GTI-CM facilitates meetings during SBSTTA events, and carries out a detailed program of work. The efforts focus on issues related to the identification of IAS (invasive alien species), the botanical challenges of the GSPC (the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation), the work of the IUCN SSC (International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission) , and data sharing through GBIF, iBOL, and the EoL (Global Biodiversity Information Facility, International Barcodes of Life, and the Encyclopedia of Life respectively).

A museum botanist kneels beside the Coppermine River while holding plants collected

Museum botanist Dr. Jeff Saarela collects Arctic cottongrass during a plant collecting expedition along the Coppermine River in Nunavut, July 2014. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Museum of Nature and many like-minded organizations continue to build awareness of the importance of taxonomy, add to our capacity to do it, and share our results freely and broadly. We add new knowledge for the scientific community through our Centre for Arctic Knowledge and Exploration and our Centre for Species Discovery and Change. We share it through our collections data portal and talk about it in exhibitions and educational programs.

People crowd around a table to hear a scientist talk about mussel biodiversity.

Museum scientist Dr. Andre Martel engages visitors about the biodiversity of mussels during a public Open House of the Natural Hertitage Campus, October 2013. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

At each meeting of the CBD, the pot of alphabet soup grows deeper and thicker as we head toward the year 2020. At that point, the heads-of-state will take the pulse of our decades of focussed effort to slow the disappearance of the estimated 2 million species with which we share life on this planet.

This entry was posted in Animals, Plants and Algae, Research and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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